Cass McCombs turned Baltimore’s Ottobar into a spacey dreamworld during his set Saturday night. In the midst of his US winter tour, he played with a full backing band, including keys, bass, guitar, pedal-steel guitar and drums. Opening was Frank Fairfield, along for the duration of the tour, and Walker and Jay.
First to the stage was the Baltimore based trio Walker and Jay. Gathered close around one microphone, with only acoustic instruments, they looked and sounded like they could have walked right out of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. There was an upright bass, providing the backbone and rhythm for the set, a fiddle, and the lead singer switched between playing banjo and what looked like some kind of steel guitar. Their old-timey country/bluegrass/blues was both lovely and rousing, and set an intimate mood for the evening.
Next up was another musical anachronism, Frank Fairfield. Looking a little like a young Theodore Roosevelt, minus the glasses, he took the stage alone, seated on a chair in the middle of the stage, and started his set with an amazing number on the fiddle, accompanied by some foot-stomping. Again, he used only a microphone on the stage as amplification. The singer of Walker and Jay had mentioned him in their set, joking/praising him as being “on the cutting edge of antiquated music.” He was certainly extremely talented at what he did. He played a pretty long set, and switched between playing banjo and fiddle, sometimes singing, but softly and far enough from the mic that it was challenging to understand what he was singing. It really felt like he had been plucked from the beginning of the last century and dropped onstage via time-machine. The only critique I would place on his spot as opener, was that instead of revving the crowd up for the headliner, he kind of lulled us into a tranquil(ized) space.
Finally Cass McCombs and his band took the stage. I was super happy that he started his set off with my current favorite of his songs, “Love Thine Enemy,” from his latest album Humor Risk, released in November 2011 on Domino Records. However, that proved to be one of the most upbeat moments of the set. Most of the songs hovered in ambient dreamland, soft, mellow, beautiful, hypnotic almost to a fault. The sleepiness of the atmosphere was not helped by the fact that he required all the lights in the house to be off, even stopping between songs to ask that the christmas lights overhead be turned off. There were no lights shining on him or his band either, the stage was only backlit by a wall of honeycomb-patterned, fuzzy, blinking lights. It created a beautiful effect, but combined with the super mellow music it had a bit of a narcotic effect. If I hadn’t been extremely caffeinated I might have slipped into slumber myself.
As far as the set went, he did a good job of mixing in songs from albums old and new. Highlights included the newer “Robin Egg Blue,” “My Master,” from his 2004 album A ,”My Sister, My Spouse,” from 2009’s Catacombs, and another of my favorites “County Line” from his earlier 2011 release Wit’s End.